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US terror interrogation went too far, experts say

Reports find that Jose Padilla's solitary confinement led to mental problems.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2007


Jose Padilla had no history of mental illness when President Bush ordered him detained in 2002 as a suspected Al Qaeda operative. But he does now.

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The Muslim convert was subjected to prison conditions and interrogation techniques that took him past the breaking point, mental health experts say.

Two psychiatrists and a psychologist who conducted detailed personal examinations of Mr. Padilla on behalf of his defense lawyers say his extended detention and interrogation at the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., left him with severe mental disabilities. All three say he may never recover.

Padilla's psychological condition is important because his situation marks the first time an enemy combatant in the war on terror is in a position to present a verifiable claim of abuse at the hands of US interrogators. Padilla's mental health itself is a form of evidence, mental-health experts say, and it strongly suggests that – at least in Padilla's case – the government's harsh interrogation and confinement tactics went too far.

Padilla is currently on trial in Miami on terror conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say he was a willing Al Qaeda recruit who attended a training camp in Afghanistan. He denies the allegations. Closing arguments in the three-month trial are slated to begin Monday.

Beyond the outcome of his Miami trial, larger issues loom. Chief among them, legal scholars say, is whether Mr. Bush acted within his constitutional authority when he ordered Padilla, a United States citizen, held without charge as an enemy combatant at the brig for three years and seven months.

Padilla's treatment in the brig raises another issue, these scholars say: whether the Constitution ever permits the government to force a man to confess to involvement in terrorist plots and, in doing so, risk destruction of a portion of his mind.

Defense Department officials reject charges that Padilla was mistreated. "The government in the strongest terms denies Padilla's allegations of torture – allegations made without support and without citing a shred of record evidence," writes Navy Commander J.D. Gordon, a spokesman for the secretary of Defense, in an e-mail. "Any credible allegations of illegal conduct by US military personnel are taken seriously and looked into in painstaking detail."

He adds, "There has never been a substantiated case of detainee abuse at Charleston Navy brig."

The Padilla mental-health issue arises as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure to balance the requirements of the criminal justice system against the demands of its intelligence-collection system. Information about Padilla's detention and interrogation at the brig is classified. But his mental health status can't be kept secret.

Rare window into detention

His psychological reports are on file in his Miami court case. The three reports total 34 pages and offer a rare window into the psychological effects of Padilla's experience in the brig. The mental-health experts were retained by Padilla's lawyers for testimony during pretrial motions. The reports reflect their professional judgments offered to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

In Padilla's case, these experts say, the pattern of signs and symptoms clearly suggest their origin is the brig . Unlike many allegations of harm from interrogation methods, Padilla's mental condition – and the probable cause of his mental disabilities – can be critically assessed and verified by an independent panel of mental-health professionals, provided Padilla cooperates, these and other psychology experts say.

The judge in Padilla's criminal case has already ruled that Padilla is suffering from a mental disability, but she refused to allow defense lawyers to explore the issue of whether the disability was caused by Padilla's treatment in the brig.

US intelligence officials had good reason to want to learn what Padilla knew. He was detained on suspicion that he was plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in the US. He was arrested eight months after the 9/11 attacks as he stepped off a plane in Chicago from the Middle East. Officials were worried about the possibility of a second wave of terror attacks and the presence of sleeper cells in the US.

Padilla's interrogation was designed to overcome his will to keep silent, and then to wring from him every detail of what officials thought he might know of Al Qaeda's plans and operations.

Jose Padilla timeline

1970 Born in Brooklyn, N.Y.

1974 His father dies; the family later moves to Chicago.

1980s ­ Several run-ins with the law, including gang involvement and convictions for battery and armed robbery. A robbery turns deadly after a friend stabs a victim. He enters a juvenile detention center and remains until age 18.

1989 ­ Moves to Florida with mother.

1991 ­ Serves 10 months in Broward County jail for firing a shot after a road-rage altercation. He becomes interested in Islam.

Mid-1990s ­ Employed with his girlfriend, Cherie Maria Stultz, at a Taco Bell managed by the cofounder of an Islamic school. Eventually, they both convert. He changes his name to Ibrahim. They marry.

1998 ­ Travels alone to Egypt to study Islam and Arabic with funds collected at his mosque. Eventually, he and Stultz file for divorce. He marries an Egyptian.

2000 ­ Visits Saudi Arabia for the hajj, then Yemen and Pakistan. The US Justice Department claims he meets with Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and attends a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.

2002 ­ Reportedly talks with Al Qaeda leaders about a "dirty bomb" plot. On his return to US to see family, FBI agents arrest him in Chicago. President declares him an "enemy combatant" and he begins 43 months of detention and interrogation in a naval brig.

2003-2006 ­ Courts wrestle over whether the president has authority to order the military detention of a US citizen arrested on US soil. The administration indicts him in criminal court. The US Supreme Court dismisses a case challenging the legality of his military detention.

2007 Is tried in criminal court on terror conspiracy charges in Miami.

– Compiled by Leigh Montgomery

Sources: George Mason School of Law; FBI; court filings; news reports